Try Calisthenics, You Will Not Be Disappointed.

Photo by Ivan Samkov

The gym is fantastic, especially a proper one with all the equipment you could fathom. Unfortunately, everyone does not have access to a hardcore bodybuilder gym or a powerlifter gym. Hell, some people do not have access to a typical commercial gym. Yet, this has not stopped many individuals from gaining impressive strength and physiques. Bodyweight exercises have the advantage of needing very little to no equipment. Despite what the foolish may say, calisthenics is great for hypertrophy and strength development. Of course, when body weight is not enough, adding weight to calisthenics can be as easy as putting some weight into a backpack, strapping it on, and going to town.

Calisthenics allows a person to train almost anywhere. Other than a pull-up bar or some alternative, all you need is some space and possibly a chair. Not needing much or any equipment makes calisthenics a considerable choice for anyone who does not have access to a gym or prefers not to go to a gym. Another advantage of calisthenics being able to be done anywhere is that it is valuable for people who need to save some money. While nothing can replace a well-constructed home gym, calisthenics provides a nearly free alternative. Of course, if you live near a park, you have a gym for free. I am sure everyone has seen those impressive park workouts. You could do those too! Well, maybe in a few years with consistent training. While calisthenics training can be used with mostly no equipment, a few pieces of equipment will give more options. A pull-up bar is a must if you do not live near a park and are not a gym-goer. TRX bands or gymnast rings are fine implements as they both provide a wide range of other exercises. Bodyweight row bars, while nice, are one of those pieces of equipment that I would recommend after you get everything else you need. If you want to add weight to your calisthenics, a sturdy backpack is a great start and will provide extra use for other activities. Chains or small-weight plates are a great way to add weight to the bag. And while you are buying small weights, it might be worth buying adjustable dumbbell handles to have dumbbells to add to your small equipment collection. If you want to go even cheaper, you can go to a home improvement store and buy play sand, tape, and a sturdy bag to build sandbags. Sandbags are a fantastic tool to add to your calisthenics routine. Of course, this is all optional, but it is nice to add.

A perceived weakness of calisthenics is progression. How do you progress once you have mastered a movement? (I would define this as the ability to perform multiple sets of 50 or more reps of an exercise). Progression is not a big issue at all. There are two main methods to approach progression in calisthenics: weighted calisthenics and advanced variations. The first, and my personal favorite, is adding weight to your calisthenics. You can add resistance in a backpack, with chains or small plates, gym equipment, such as a barbell or dumbbell, use of a sandbag, or weighted vest. Progression in this manner can be easy. I recommend establishing a maximum number of reps to reach with a certain weight, 20–50 reps would be a good number for most exercises (10–20 for pull-ups). Then, once you reach your established reps, do as many reps as you can (AMRAP). Each week, try to match or beat your number last week or last session until you hit your established rep goal. Once you have reached your rep goal, preferably for multiple sets, finally increase the weight and repeat the process. This progression system is called a step-load progression system. The step-load progression is when you remain at a certain intensity while increasing reps until you reach a pre-established rep goal. Then repeat at a higher weight to continue strength and hypertrophy gains. The step-load progression system also can be implemented with the second method of calisthenic progression: advanced bodyweight exercises. Even with bodyweight exercises, there is always a hierarchy of difficulty. The incline push-up is less demanding than regular push-ups. Decline push-ups are harder than regular push-ups. Finally, handstand push-ups are more advanced than decline push-ups. A different direction is that plyometric push-ups are harder than regular push-ups, and clapping push-ups are more demanding than those. Double clapping push-ups are even more advanced than single clapping push-ups. The most significant advantage of using higher-level variations of any exercise is that your path is adjustable to your goals. It is worth looking into this method. To apply the step load method, do the same thing as noted before, except instead of adding weight, choose a variation. Now, of course, the immediate thought is, well, what if I reach the pinnacle of a movement. Well, A.) you cannot. There is always something harder, and B.) you can choose another progression path to pursue. So this weakness of calisthenics is caused more by ignorance than anything.

Another perceived issue with calisthenics is leg training. The legs are a powerful body part where bodyweight might not be enough. As I mentioned previously, adding weight is always an option, but if you do not have access to a form of weight, which is silly, let’s see where it goes anyway. One option is unilateral work or doing one leg at a time. Bulgarian split squat, pistol squats, single-leg glute bridges, strict step-ups, and a plethora of other single-leg exercises are great options to overcome this problem. If you do not have the balance for single-leg exercises, b-stance versions are also an option. B-stance is when your non-working leg is to the side, similar to a kickstand. This leg is not the primary agonist in the movement but will remove the balance component of the exercise. And there are also single leg exercises that do not require you to be on one leg, such as lunges. While single-leg exercises are the primary way to strengthen the legs without weights, other movements such as the Nordic curl, reverse Nordic curls, and the sissy squat are incredibly valuable but challenging exercises. Of course, there is always plyometric exercise, such as the jump squat, in the calisthenics arsenal. There are plenty of options to strengthen the lower body with bodyweight exercises.

A simple example of a weekly calisthenics training schedule would be like:

Day 1:

Three sets of AMRAP Push-Ups

Three sets of AMRAP Pike Push-Ups

Three sets of AMRAP Pull-Ups

Three sets of AMRAP Inverted Rows

Day 2:

Three sets of AMRAP Sissy Squats

Three sets of AMRAP Nordic Curls

Three sets of AMRAP Reverse Lunges (Match Reps with each leg)

Three sets of AMRAP Single Leg Glute Bridge (Match Reps with each leg)

Day 3:

Three sets of AMRAP Diamond Push-Ups

Three sets of AMRAP Close Grip Chin Ups

Three sets of AMRAP Dips

Three sets of AMRAP Assisted or Unassisted Chin Up Eccentrics (Match Reps with each arm)

Day 4:

Three sets of AMRAP Jump Squats

Three sets of AMRAP Strict Step Ups or Shrimp Squats (Match Reps with each leg)

Three sets of AMRAP Reverse Nordic Curls or Bodyweight Leg extension

Three sets of AMRAP Bulgarian Split Squats

This routine is simple but incorporated in the step-load progression method detailed earlier. It is also possible to advance this program by adding more sets, adding more exercises, or switching out movements that are more conducive to your goals and limitations. If you are running low on time, this routine works with myo-reps. Myo-reps are a form of rest-pause training where the first set is to failure, rest about 10–20 seconds followed by a set of reps equal to about 20–25% of your initial set, rest for 10–20 seconds, do another set of 20–25% of your initial set, and repeat until you have reached five mini-sets. Typically, each mini-set will consist of 1–5 rep sets. The trick with myo-reps is to keep the rest low to avoid getting out of the fatigue zone for the muscle. One set of myo-reps is usually enough per exercise, which is why it is a great time saver. Personally, myo-reps are my preferred method for training, but I have been training for over ten years and do multiple myo-rep sets. I DO NOT recommend this to most people. Anyway, the program will then look like this:

Day 1:

One set of Myo-Reps Push-Ups

One set of Myo-Reps Pike Push-Ups

One set of Myo-Reps Pull-Ups

One set of Myo-Reps Inverted Rows

Day 2:

One set of Myo-Reps Sissy Squats

One set of Myo-Reps Nordic Curls

One set of Myo-Reps Reverse Lunges (Match Reps with each leg)

One set of Myo-Reps Single Leg Glute Bridge (Match Reps with each leg)

Day 3:

One set of Myo-Reps Diamond Push-Ups

One set of Myo-Reps Close Grip Chin Ups

One set of Myo-Reps Dips

One set of Myo-Reps Assisted or Unassisted Chin Up Eccentrics (Match Reps with each arm)

Day 4:

One set of Myo-Reps Jump Squats

One set of Myo-Reps Strict Step Ups or Shrimp Squats (Match Reps with each leg)

One set of Myo-Reps Reverse Nordic Curls or Bodyweight Leg extension

One set of Myo-Reps Bulgarian Split Squats

One of the best ways to use calisthenics is with regular weight training. Now, it might seem redundant to say this as most people use pull-ups in their programs, but I mean something more. Calisthenics can integrate into your current routine. For example, you can replace bench press with weighted push-ups for variation. You can use shrimp squats as an accessory on your leg day or glute bridges as a finisher to your deadlift day. Dips are fantastic tricep builders while not needing any weight and being easy to add more weight. It is a valuable addition to any program. Maybe the shoulder press machine is busy. You can do pike push-ups or handstand push-ups so you can get in and out of the gym faster. Calisthenics with gym training is one of my favorite methods when programming for my clients. The goal is to give my clients the best of both worlds to get superior results.

Another limitation of calisthenics people tend to cite is bodyweight exercises are impractical for bigger bodies. Individuals with a higher body weight usually have more trouble with calisthenics, especially if they are starting to get into fitness. With a base of strength, calisthenics is a challenge but not impossible. In fact, in my journey, pull-ups at a bodyweight of 250lbs create a massive stimulus. Chin-ups at that weight feel like a close grip bench press for my biceps. Calisthenics at a heavier weight is something I think is highly underrated. I recommend incorporating calisthenics movements to everyone, especially if you are a heavier fitness enthusiast like myself.

Calisthenics is a great way to train, whether you wish to add them to your current gym routine or you do not have any gym equipment at all. They can be used as a primary mode of training or a replacement when your current training method is out of reach for whatever reason. I employ you to look into calisthenics training as I have. I have recently fully dove into calisthenics, and I must say. It is worth it. So take the plunge.

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Quentin Washington

Quentin Washington

I am an exercise physiologist and online fitness/nutrition coach. If you like what I write here, check out my website: https://greathammerfitness.webflow.io/